On Friday I went back to The Bronx. This time to the Highbridge Community with its steep hills nestled within an extensively built up residential area, imagine Meynell Heights and then add 500 more. As the subway train trundled its way above ground towards the concourse I past the Yankee Stadium, a giant structure overshadowing the Highbridge District 4. It’s hard to believe this is a community that had practically all its houses burnt down, until 1977 when Jimmy Carter visited, walked over the wasteland with his press team and ignited public interest giving way to urban renewal. I consult my navigation app and walk 20 minutes up through these streets (I’m imagining pushing that buggy up the hill again). It’s 9.30am its already hot, and it’s quiet. I pass a quaint allotment garden with pieces of children’s play equipment and parasols. I suddenly see to my right the Bridge Builders storefront with the door open.
My appointment is with Rosa Rosado LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) But, as I walk through the door I’m greeted by Tracey Carter. I meet her sparkly eyes as she smiles at me and says they’ve been expecting me. I am a bit star struck, I have read so much about her and her organisation Bridge Builders in books and articles. Tracey who’s story of overcoming struggle of the child welfare system has been documented in the following article; http://www.newschool.edu/milano/nycaffairs/No_Easy_Choices.aspx
and book by David Tobis 2013 From Pariahs to Parents How Parents and their Allies changed New York City’s Child Welfare System.
It’s hard not to write about it all without turning it into an essay, but Bridge Builders Community Partnership (BBCP) is an umbrella service which brings together eight different local community organisations, they started out with 3 years funding (they are entering their tenth year). It has been a life line for parents who have children who are in or fear of going into the foster care system. The one stop storefront offers advice on legal assistance, housing and parenting classes. Again BBCP is another example of how past parent representation makes up for a high number of frontline staff. Most of the workers here have themselves experienced involvement with the social care system and who’s experience helps families navigate the matrix of the foster care system, helping families be reunited with their children or reduce the time of reunification. The organisation also helps communicate between parents and foster carers/agencies to elevate unnecessary anxiety.
The historical backdrop of the BBCP rests on the radical work of the Child Welfare Organizing Project (CWOP). CWOP is based in the East Harlem Neighbourhood founded in 1994 and is known for its positive active parental involvement who’s work has been instrumental in turning round the child welfare system. CWOP has not only helped reduce the number of children in foster care in New York but has given the parent a voice. I am grateful for Mike Arsham the former Executive Director of CWOP who now works for ACS for providing me with contact names and literature for this visit and to David Tobis who has helped me navigate the network of contacts too.
Tracey is the first face you see when you walk through the door. Now, trained by the CWOP she is qualified to represent and advocate for parents that have been through similar traumatic experiences.
The office is open plan and I am taken over to a large conference style wooden desk and I set up my dictaphone. Rosa sits opposite me on her right is Tracey and to her left is Carlos. The storefront is still open but they are keen learn more about my research and what i’m going to ask them. Tracey speaks fluidly about her experiences, I am captivated listening to her stories and humbled by her courage of now helping others. I tell them about the speakeasy (not the Harlem speakeasy’s) but the fpa speakeasy course in the UK – I am trained to facilitate in helping parents talk to their children about sex and relationships. Tracey quickly adds they have just had forum to discuss possibly running something like this with parents ( a lot of parents attended) and is really interested in what the course covers. I have their attention for a full 10 minutes before a family walks through the door, Tracey quickly gets up and excuses herself. I listen to Carlos, originally from Colombia he tells me his struggle of being a single father and fighting the welfare system for custody of his son. He is now the ‘visiting host’ which are our ‘contact’ visits. (when a child is removed from care they have hour long visits with their biological parent or carer, these are usually conducted in sterile environments with a social worker sat taking notes or catching up with their work in a corner) Carlos helps this process by sitting with them helping to engage with their children and takes the edge off what can be already a difficult time for both child and adult. If the weather is nice he will take them over to the allotment garden I saw when I first got here. Bridge Builders also trains and provides parent advocates to sit with parents on Child Protection Conferences, already an intimidating process enough, Parent Advocates have ‘been there’ and are quick to mediate and anticipate any problems which may occur in the meetings.
Rosa explains with all her energy about the work they do at the centre. It’s exhausting listening to how they outreach all flats in the neighbourhood, how they promote all the work they do at events and fairs, by staying consistent within the community, leafleting at the schools. She talks to another colleague who is helping a family move house, she will be doing most of the carrying and using her car. Hearing all this reminds me of my past outreach work, the thought of leafleting in Highbridge makes Holbeck look like toy town.
Tracey takes her time helping the family meanwhile another lady comes in and sits down patiently to wait to speak to her. This service is welcoming and non judgemental for families already feeling stigmatised. Just imagining having something like this in the UK would welcome so many families caught up in the system. Having someone who truly understands can be what a parent needs to build trust and the acceptance to listen to what must be done to help the situation.
BBCP and it’s affiliates have helped build Community Engagement. By helping people who have already fallen through the net has meant that they’ve stretched that net further by catching more people by their preventative work such as parent classes and signposting to the head start and early head start centres.
Carlos goes and buys me drink from the shop, and tells me to wait there is someone he wants me to meet – Chauncy Young a Community Organiser from the Highbridge Community Life Center – Neighbours helping neighbours. I’m about to observe him in action!